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Saturday’s Things to Know: Conference titles get decided; Murray State and Ja Morant earn an autobid

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: Ja Morant, Murray State

Many consider the sophomore point guard to be among the nation’s best players, but Morant hasn’t received the type of national attention that he got on Saturday night. And the future lottery pick delivered in a big way.

Helping Murray State to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season, Morant pick put up 36 points to go with seven rebounds and three assists as the Racers took down Belmont to earn the autobid in the Ohio Valley Conference.

With some fans tuning in to see Morant play for the first time, he didn’t disappoint, as he displayed the breathtaking playmaking ability and jaw-dropping athleticism that scouts have been raving about. One night after producing the go-ahead three-point play in the OVC semifinals, Morant again put his team on his back and got them back into the Big Dance.

March Madness just got soooo much better knowing that we get at least one more national showcase for Morant.

TEAM OF THE DAY: Michigan State Spartans

On Senior Day at the Breslin Center, if you’re going to kiss the Spartan logo at center court, then you better have the win in-hand before checking out for the final time. Especially when the Big Ten title is on the line and it’s a battle against bitter in-state rival Michigan when both teams are ranked in the top 10.

Michigan State rallied in impressive fashion in the second half to claim a share of the Big Ten title while also preventing the Wolverines from achieving the same with a 75-63 win. Trailing by eight points in the second half after a sluggish first 20 minutes, Michigan State started firing on all cylinders as junior point guard Cassius Winston’s hot stretch ignited a 25-4 Spartans run. After an ice-cold 1-for-8 start to the evening, Winston buried five straight shots to end the game with a team-high 23 points and seven assists.

This Big Ten title is especially impressive for Michigan State because the Spartans did it without Joshua Langford and Nick Ward playing for large stretches of time during the season. Missing two of their top players, and still earning a Big Ten title, speaks to the depth of the Spartans while Hall of Fame head coach Tom Izzo accomplished one of his most impressive feats.

Now the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament, Michigan State is hoping to ease Ward back into the lineup so he can contribute during the NCAA tournament. The phrase “Izzo in March” is usually reserved for the NCAA tournament. But it feels okay to use it here given the extraordinary late-season circumstances.

SATURDAY’S WINNERS

Co-ACC Champions North Carolina and Virginia: The Tar Heels swept the regular-season series with the Blue Devils to claim their share ACC glory as Roy Williams continues to own Coach K in the regular-season ACC title department since taking over the Tar Heels in 2004. Even though North Carolina had some question marks entering this season, most notably at lead guard, they’ve put themselves in position to potentially earn a No. 1 seed with their play this season.

Virginia shook off the historic NCAA tournament loss to No. 16 seed UMBC to earn another ACC title with a win over Louisville as Tony Bennett continue to have the league’s number. Looking stronger, deeper and more dangerous than last season, Virginia is the rare No. 1 seed with a legitimate chip on their shoulder entering the postseason.

Buckle up for a fun ACC tournament next week, as Duke, North Carolina and Virginia all have solid cases to potentially earn No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.

LSU: Playing without head coach Will Wade and freshman starting guard Javonte Smart, the Tigers still took care of business in a big home win over Vanderbilt. The victory gave the Tigers the outright title in the SEC — something few could have predicted entering the 2018-19 season given the strength of Kentucky and Tennessee. The recent Wade/Smart scandal has dominated the headlines and cast a black cloud over young LSU’s surprising season. It’s also easy to forget that the Tigers had to deal with the loss of teammate Wayde Sims in late September as he was tragically killed in a shooting. There’s a very real potential that this SEC championship will eventually get erased from the record books. But for now, LSU deserves to celebrate a special season in which they’ve overcome some incredibly difficult circumstances to become one of the best teams in the country.

Purdue: Splitting the Big Ten regular-season title with Michigan State after a road win at Northwestern, nobody expected head coach Matt Painter and his Boilermakers to have this type of season. With only one returning starter in Carsen Edwards, and with a mostly-new supporting cast, Purdue has been one of the nation’s pleasant surprises this season as Painter deserves National Coach of the Year chatter. In a brutally-tough Big Ten, Purdue seemed to only get better as the season wore along as they proved to be more than just Edwards and his scoring punch.

Co-Big 12 Champions Texas Tech and Kansas State: Who could have predicted these two winning the Big 12 championship? While Kansas State was a preseason top-10 team in the eyes of some following last season’s Elite Eight appearance, Texas Tech is another included on the list of most surprising teams in the country. The Red Raiders overcame the loss of six of their top eight scorers as head coach Chris Beard basically put an entirely new rotation on the floor from his own Elite Eight appearance last season. The national focus has drifted mostly towards Kansas losing its 14-year Big 12 regular-season title streak. Not enough credit has been given to Kansas State and Texas Tech both overcoming slow conference starts to bring home a league title.

Seton Hall: The Pirates had the best week of any bubble team in the country, and frankly, there doesn’t feel like a close second place. Earning back-to-back Q1 wins over Marquette and Villanova, the top two teams in the Big East, Seton Hall essentially punched its ticket into the NCAA tournament by grabbing two more monster wins during the final week of the regular season. Myles Powell is playing with a ton of confidence right now and the Pirates will be a fascinating team to follow at Madison Square Garden during the Big East tournament.

Temple: A home win over UCF could be the final ingredient in getting the Owls into the NCAA tournament. In head coach Fran Dunphy’s final season on the sidelines, Temple is hoping to be the fourth team from the American to make it into the Big Dance. During a season where many bubble teams are hovering near .500, while drawing the ire of college hoops diehards, it’s hard not to root for a story where a respected veteran coach leads his team into the field.

Villanova (even in a loss): Suffering a disappointing road loss at Seton Hall, the Wildcats still got lucky enough to win the Big East title, outright, thanks to Marquette’s shocking home loss to Georgetown. Even though Villanova struggled down the stretch this season — losing five of their last eight games — they still captured a conference title during an up-and-down season. Earning a No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament was an added bonus as Villanova tries to figure things out before the NCAA tournament.

SATURDAY’S LOSERS

Marquette: This recent stretch will haunt Marquette fans for years to come. Losing four straight games to close out the regular season, the Golden Eagles blew a shot at the Big East regular-season title on numerous occasions. As noted above, Villanova lost five of its final eight games. That allowed Marquette every opportunity to stay in the race. None of those chances were more apparent than Saturday. After the Wildcats fell to Seton Hall to begin the afternoon slate of games, Marquette took the floor at home against Georgetown knowing that they could win and earn a share of the Big East championship. And just like the previous three games, Marquette faltered in the final minutes to blow another winnable game. The Golden Eagles have been pitiful late in games over the last two weeks as they’re suddenly in a freefall heading into MSG for the Big East tournament. On the bright side, Marquette has single-handedly kept the Big East’s bubble teams afloat by gifting recent wins to Creighton, Seton Hall and now Georgetown.

Tennessee: Entering Saturday, the Vols were given a chance to be co-SEC champions with LSU. Tennessee squandered those circumstances with a road loss at Auburn to start the afternoon. Although it’s never easy to win at Auburn now that Bruce Pearl and the Tigers have that place rocking, Tennessee has to be kicking themselves knowing that they could have won the league in back-to-back seasons.

Loyola: We won’t be seeing Loyola and Sister Jean in the 2019 NCAA tournament following last season’s memorable Final Four run. The top-seeded Ramblers were upset by Bradley in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament on Saturday as Loyola’s two Conference Players of the Year, Clayton Custer and Marques Townes, were held to only 17 points combined on 7-for-27 shooting.

South Dakota State and Mike Daum: One of college basketball’s all-time greats will not be playing in the 2019 NCAA tournament as No. 1 seed South Dakota State shockingly fell to No. 8 seed Western Illinois in the Summit League tournament quarterfinals. Making an NCAA tournament appearance the past three seasons, it will feel bizarre not to have Daum and the Jackrabbits in the Big Dance during his final college season. Daum finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds in the loss as he only attempted 10 field goals on the night (making five).

FINAL THOUGHT

In looking over the power conference champions decided on Saturday, it’s crazy to think about how quickly things changed in college basketball throughout the course of this regular season. Let’s do a brief rundown in a bullet format to make things easier.

  • A few weeks into the season, Duke going undefeated was a legitimate storyline that people were discussing. Flash forward a few months later and North Carolina and Virginia split the ACC crown.
  • Listed as the preseason No. 1 team and national title favorite by many pundits, Kansas faltered and saw its dominant 14-year reign in the Big 12 come to an end. Kansas State started the Big 12 season 0-2 and Texas Tech was 4-3. Both of those teams pulled it together and shared the league title.
  • Within the last month, two top-10 tilts between Kentucky and Tennessee dominated the SEC headlines. LSU snuck in the back door to claim the SEC title over both of them. Outright.
  • Villanova was left for dead during nonconference play with losses to Furman and Penn. St. John’s and Marquette became trendy picks to win the Big East as conference play started. The Wildcats prevailed and still ended up gaining the Big East title.
  • And the Big Ten focused on Michigan’s early-season dominance only to see the Wolverines relinquish the league crown to rival Michigan State and Purdue. The Spartans lost arguably two of their top three players for most of conference season and still won while Purdue replaced four starters and became one of the nation’s biggest overachievers.

I guess the main point in all of this is that college basketball’s 2018-19 season has been absolutely insane — and that’s only touching on five major conferences to get to my point. That doesn’t even include the Pac-12’s historically awful season, Houston emerging as a legitimate top-10 team, and a point guard from Murray State being called the second best prospect in the upcoming NBA Draft only behind a dude who has been compared to LeBron.

Good luck predicting what’s going to happen over the final month of this zany season. All of the drama and surprises will be a ton of fun to watch.

Best Bets: Previewing the weekend’s biggest college basketball games

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There are no Vegas lines for these games just yet. All analysis will be based on KenPom projections, which typically end up close to the opening lines anyway.

No. 7 NORTH CAROLINA at No. 5 VIRGINIA, Sun. 4:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Virginia 61, North Carolina 55
  • TICKETS: Click here

I am going to be fascinated to see where the line for this game opens up, because neither of these teams are playing all that well right now, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Virginia was blown out by unranked Purdue on the road, 69-40, while North Carolina is coming off of a drubbing at the hands of Ohio State in their own building, 74-49.

My initial lean here is going to be the Virginia side, depending on how much they are laying, but I do think that the best bet would likely be the under assuming the line opens at or around 116. The logic is relatively simple, really. Virginia has still been one of college basketball’s most intimidating defenses this season despite what happened against Purdue. While nice, 69 points doesn’t sound like a lot, but the 1.19 points-per-possession the Boilermakers did post was one of just four times in the last two-plus years that a team has done that against Virginia.

Purdue has done it twice.

That’s because the Boilermakers run the precise kind of action you need to run to beat the Pack-Line. There is a ton of motion, guys running off of screens every which way and action happening simultaneously on both sides of the floor. This is not what North Carolina does, and when combined with the fact that – as shown in the video embedded below – the Tar Heels have basically one option offensively right now, leads me to believe that the Wahoos will control tempo, overwhelm UNC defensively and keep this game in the 50s.

Think about it like this. Ohio State-UNC finished at 123 total points. Virginia is the only defense in the country ranked higher on KenPom that Ohio State, and Virginia is a full 100 spots lower offensively.

PICKS: I like Virginia -5 and below, and I like the under for everything 115 and above.

No. 12 ARIZONA at No. 18 BAYLOR, Sat. 12:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Baylor 75, Arizona 71
  • TICKETS: Click here

There are a couple of things to take into account here.

For starters, this game is being played in Waco, but there are some real questions about just how much of a home court advantage the Bears are going to have here. The football team is in the Big 12 title game, which will be played at the same time. I have a feeling that is going to take priority for the majority of the Baylor fanbase. Baylor has resorted to giving away free tickets to make sure the stands are filled.

That said, I think that Baylor has the matchup advantage here. The Bears haven’t been playing as much zone this year but it’s still something they can fall back into, which will be tricky for an Arizona team built around three freshmen. I also think the size Baylor has inside is less than ideal for a team that relies on Zeke Nnaji quite a bit. Then throw in the fact that this is Arizona’s first true road game and first game outside of the western time zone, and I like the spot for Baylor.

PICKS: I’m refraining from betting on this. I don’t have a great feel.

No. 9 GONZAGA at No. 22 WASHINGTON, Sun. 7:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Gonzaga 73, Washington 71
  • TICKETS: Click here

A rivalry game, one where I expect Gonzaga to be favored on the road. I think I like Washington here. I don’t fully trust Gonzaga’s guard play at this point in the season, and if anyone remembers the way that the Washington-Baylor game ended the first week of the season, Isaiah Stewart completely dominated Baylor’s frontline down the stretch. I can see that happening again, considering just how much Gonzaga relies on running offense through their posts.

PICKS: I think Washington will win, so getting the Huskies on the money line at +125 would be nice.

FLORIDA at No. 24 BUTLER, Sat. 12:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Butler 63, Florida 57
  • TICKETS: Click here

We’ve been betting Butler this season because the Bulldogs have been undervalued by the market all year. But now that they have that number next to their name and coming off of a really impressive win at Ole Miss, I think our chance to be all in on this team may have come to an end.

I also think that six points is a lot in this matchup, which I expect to be really low-scoring. The Gators can defend, are good at running teams off of the three-point line and can’t make threes themselves. They have a number of guards they can throw at Kamar Baldwin and have shown no desire to play fast at all this season. Butler is 348th in average possession length offensively.

PICKS: Let’s see where the total opens, but if it’s in the low-to-mid 120s, I think the under is the play in this game.

No. 20 COLORADO at No. 2 KANSAS, Sat. 7:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Kansas 73, Colorado 65
  • TICKETS: Click here

I am definitely looking forward to this game because I feel like I haven’t had a chance to really watch Colorado yet this season. I saw a little bit of their game against Arizona State in the opener, but that’s it. So keep that in mind as I proceed to tout the Buffaloes. Here’s the logic: The Jayhawks want to run their offense through Udoka Azubuike in the post, and Colorado is top ten nationally in defensive two-point field goal percentage. They have big bodies, they have strong posts and they can make life tough for Azubuike inside.

PICKS: I think this line will open up higher than Colorado (+8). Getting the Buffaloes (+10.5) would make all of my wildest dreams come true.

No. 19 DAYTON vs. SAINT MARY’S, Sun. 4:00 p.m. (Phoenix)

  • KENPOM: Dayton 70, Saint Mary’s 68
  • TICKETS: Click here

I’ll be on Dayton here. What makes Saint Mary’s dangerous is their ability to spread teams out with their shooting and create mismatches all over the court. Dayton does the same thing, only they have Player of the Year candidate Obi Toppin creating mismatches, who should, in theory, be able to limit Malik Fitts’ advantage at the four. Playing this game at a neutral site is a bonus as well.

PICKS: I like Dayton up to (-4.5), and I would think about the under as well. Both of these teams are built on shooting, and neutral sites environments can be tough to shoot in. Saint Mary’s wanting to play at a slow pace will help as well.

CINCINNATI at XAVIER, Sat. 5:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Xavier 73, Cincinnati 67
  • TICKETS: Click here

My take on Cincinnati is that the Bearcats are overvalued right now. The biggest reason for that is that there seems to still be some tension between new head coach John Brannen and star guard Jarron Cumberland. I also think that Xavier is one of the teams that is being undervalued at this point. I know they struggle shooting the rock, but they are tough, they are athletic and they have a couple of game-changers in Naji Marshall, Tyrique Jones and Paul Scruggs. If Kyky Tandy can provide a bit of shooting and Quentin Goodin is truly out of his funk, the Musketeers are a top 20 team.

The only concern I have: This is a rivalry game. If Jarron Cumberland is ever going to play like a National Player of the Year candidate, this is the game he’ll do it.

PICKS: I will probably be staying away at Xavier (-6).

CBT Podcast: Georgetown’s problems, the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, a weekend preview

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Rob Dauster and Bobby Reagan from the Fundamentally Sound podcast go through everything that happened in a wild week of basketball, from the four – yes, four! – blowouts of in the marquee games of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge as well as the rise of DePaul and the enigma that is Indiana. Rob also discusses the situation at Georgetown at the top, and the podcast ends with a preview of what should be a lively weekend of college hoops.

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot to be ‘out a while’

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North Carolina’s freshman center Armando Bacot suffered a left ankle injury in the first half of Wednesday night’s game against Ohio State and did not return.

Bacot, who came down on a defender’s foot and had to be helped off of the floor, immediately when back to the locker.

“It was swollen by the time he got to the locker room,” coach Roy Williams said. “My guess is he’ll be out a while.”

The 6-foot-10 Bacot was averaging 11.7 points and 9.6 boards and was coming off of his best game of the season, when he posted 23 points, 12 boards and six blocks while playing a season-high 30 minutes against Oregon.

Michigan, Kentucky schedule basketball game in London

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan and Kentucky have agreed to play a basketball game in London next season as part of a three-year deal that also includes a home-and-home series between the two programs.

Michigan announced the deal Thursday. The teams will play at O2 Arena in London in December 2020. The teams will meet at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor in 2021 and at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena in 2022.

“When the idea of playing Kentucky came up, we knew it would be an exciting opportunity, not only for ourselves, but for our fans as well,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “What a unique three-game series. First, we get to showcase collegiate basketball overseas in London before playing that traditional home-and-home series in front of two of the nation’s best basketball environments.”

The teams have met seven times previously, with Kentucky holding a 5-2 edge. The Wildcats beat Michigan in a 2014 Elite Eight game in their most recent contest. When Howard was a player at Michigan, his Wolverines beat Kentucky in a 1993 national semifinal.

Film Room: How Ohio State handed North Carolina their worst loss in nearly two decades

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At this point, no one should be surprised when Chris Holtmann does something smart as a head coach, and I certainly was not surprised to see him find a way to smother North Carolina on the defensive side of the ball on Wednesday night.

In a 74-49 win in the Dean Dome, the worst home loss the Tar Heels have taken since 2002, when Matt Doherty was in charge, the Buckeyes held North Carolina to just 27.8 percent shooting from the floor. They shot 25.6 percent on two-point field goal attempts, the lowest number of the Roy Williams era. And I think so much of it had to do with what Holtmann did defensively on Cole Anthony.

The game-plan was, frankly, pretty simple. When Anthony had the ball, Ohio State climbed up in him, they hedged hard on all ball-screens and they sent bodies at him whenever he put the ball on the floor to drive. They made a conscious decision to force Anthony into either playing 1-on-2 and 1-on-3 or giving the ball up to a teammate. As soon as he gave the ball up, they face-guarded him. Full denial, even if it meant playing 4-on-4 for the rest of that possession.

And it worked.

Starting point guard C.J. Walker did the heavy lifting on Anthony, but he was hardly the only one. Luther Muhammad started out on Anthony before getting into foul trouble and playing just nine minutes. D.J. Carton, Andre Wesson and Duane Washington all took a shot at UNC’s freshman stud as well. That’s a lot of bodies, all of whom have some size, some length and some athleticism, and happen to be good individual defenders. Anthony got tired before they did.

This method was effective mainly due to the fact that Ohio State is one of the nation’s elite defenses. Combining all those athletic wings with a center in Kaleb Wesson that dropped the baby fat this summer is a luxury for Holtmann.

But it wasn’t all Ohio State.

Because what became painfully obvious for those that had not yet recognized it is that North Carolina has a startling lack of offensive weaponry. It’s almost like losing five NBA players to the draft is tough to deal with.

No matter who is on the floor with him, defenses are going to dedicate the majority of their attention to Anthony. He’s a game-changing talent. We saw him blow the game wide open against Notre Dame in the opener. He’s going to be the most dangerous player on the floor in just about every game he plays this season. But with a limited supporting cast to rely on, this is the decision Ohio State forced Roy Williams into:

1. Allow Anthony to go full iso-ball and try to win this game on his own by taking deep, contested threes off the dribble or driving into two or three defenders;

or

2. Run offense for the other guys on the roster even if the shots they are getting are tough shots for them. To put this into context, watch the clip below:

North Carolina ran that first play for Cam Johnson, the No. 11 pick in the draft, last season. This year it’s Brandon Robinson. In past seasons, the guy getting the post touch in the second clip was Kennedy Meeks, or Luke Maye, or Brice Johnson. Last night, it was Brandon Huffman. When they’re running pick-and-pop action like the third clip, it’s Garrison Brooks, not Maye, that is taking those jumpers.

If you’re coaching against North Carolina, I think you’re just fine with Brooks shooting 17-footers. That’s the shot you live with.

Now, to be clear, Robinson is not a bad player. In fact, he’s significantly better than I realized coming into the season. And the x-factor here is that Armando Bacot played just seven minutes before spraining his ankle. He may “be out for a while,” as Roy Williams put it after the game, and even then, he’s been much better as a guy that cleans up misses than as a go-to scorer in the post. According to Synergy, he’s scored just .769 points-per-possession on post-ups, which is in the 42nd percentile nationally. You just saw all four of the post-up buckets he’s scored against high-major foes this season if you watched that clip above.

Bacot is a monster on the offensive glass, and his return will help keep defenses honest because of that. Sell out on a Cole Anthony drive, and Bacot is putting that miss back with a tip-dunk.

But that only mitigates the issue North Carolina has this season.

They don’t have enough talent around Cole Anthony.